Chicago architect Margaret McCurry likens architectural design to literature.
“It’s like reading a good novel,” she says. “There’re layers of meaning. It relates back to the past, and yet it’s not exactly like anything that’s been seen before. It has the sense of being familiar, and then of being unique at the same time.”
When it comes to her own architecture, she again turns to literature. She speaks of Ernest Hemingway and Emily Dickinson and admires “how they try to encapsulate ideas and thoughts in very spare language.”
She strives for the same effect in her design. “In general, there aren’t many frills to what I do,” she explains. “It’s all sort of essentiality. That’s what I’m doing with all my work—distilling it into the essence of space and proportion.”
The world McCurry was born into, in September of 1942, was changing. Of course, she could not know this. She also could not know she would ride that wave of change, hitting the crest just as the world was ready was ready for her. She could not know how well her childhood—steeped in art and architecture—would prepare her for the ride. She only knows it now, looking back.
For McCurry, childhood was about exploration and discovery. Her parents were educated and artistically inclined. She painted with her mother and joined her father to build things with the family erector set. She created houses of Lincoln Logs. Her father was a Chicago-based architect, and she grew up in a home designed by him. She often accompanied him to work sites.
When she was old enough, she rode the train to take classes at the School of the Art Institute. Family vacations often included “field trips” of an architectural nature, and history.
“If we weren’t looking at architecture he wanted to see, we were looking at history, like Gettysburg and Williamsburg,” says McCurry. “Williamsburg is an historic town, but there’s so much character. Part of being an architect is also not just doing individual buildings, but it’s fitting it into the landscape, or the towns cape. So you’re looking at the larger picture.”
Still, the world was one where women were teachers and nurses and secretaries. They were not architects. In 1964, McCurry graduated from Vassar with degrees in art history and literature (She would later attend the Graduate School of Design at Harvard).
She returned to Chicago and entered the world of design, landing a job in the Package Design Department at Quaker Oats—as a secretary. Her foot in the door, she soon became the Package Design Coordinator.
Things were going swimmingly until a new boss summarily fired the entire department. At this juncture, McCurry’s father stepped in and suggested she interview with design firm Skidmore, Owings and Merrill (SOM). She was promptly picked for a position in the Interiors Department—where women belonged, or were, at least, accepted.
McCurry spent the next eleven years learning all she could from SOM. It was an education so thorough she was able to pass the exams that would grant her an architect’s license. When her time at SOM ended, McCurry decided to start a practice of her own. She opened up shop in 1977—on April Fool’s Day.
In 1975, a friend orchestrated a meeting between McCurry and established architect Stanley Tigerman. Technically this was a second meeting. McCurry’s father had introduced them years earlier at an award event. But things were different in 1975, and the pair soon began to date. They married in 1979.
In 1982, they formed Tigerman McCurry. Both partnerships have endured.
McCurry and Tigerman generally work on solo projects, though they have and do accept joint endeavors from time to time. Probably the most significant of these works is the Lakeside summer residence they designed together for themselves.
The home is small, sided with corrugated metal, and sits surrounded by gardens. It won them an National American Institute of Architecture (AIA) Honor Award and was featured in Architectural Digest in 1983. McCurry uses it to illustrate her design principles.
“This place is layered with meaning,” she says. “It’s a basilica plan. It’s a barn plan. It’s got a baptistry. It’s got a silo—layers of tradition.” McCurry continually strives for the intangible quality that gives a thing “soul.”
“It’s that search for beauty,” she says. “Even in this little 20 [foot] by 40 [foot] house: The way the light comes through, and the way everything is axially exposed, where you can sit and look out, no matter which way you look. And the height of the space makes you feel good and you’re not oppressed by anything. So, you can analyze it, but you like it to have that ‘first take,’ which is a sense of aura.”
McCurry has chronicled her journey in two books. The first, Constructing Twenty-Five Short Stories, was published in 2000 and tells the story of each of twenty-five designs. Nineteen of the projects featured are residences. The more recently published Distillations: The Architecture of Margaret McCurry picks up where Stories leaves off and covers projects through 2011. “This book has a number of different projects,” she says, “including some of the furniture I designed.”
McCurry’s work has been published many times, and has garnered a vast array of awards. She was inducted into the Interior Design Hall of Fame in 1990, and in 2002, ASID named her “The Designer of Distinction.” In 2012, she was made a Fellow by the International Interior Design Association.
She is a quiet person, but she is not a mouse. McCurry has travelled much of the world—ever adding to her compendium of architectural templates. It may surprise people to know she likes to fish, and she has owned and ridden a motorcycle for years.
“I’m somewhat of an adventurer,” she says. “I’ve been to Africa several times on safari.”
Architects rarely retire, according to McCurry. She doesn’t seem to be considering any such thing—not now that the world is starting to notice her work and take it seriously. Not when all her diligence is paying off.